The origins of the world's fair (also known as international exposition, exposition universelle, esposizione internazionale, and Weltausstellung) lie in the Industrial Revolution, which vastly expanded manufacturing, trade, and transportation in the first half of the nineteenth century. Beginning with London's Great Exhibition in 1851, a series of world's fairs were held in Europe to showcase advances in manufacturing, science, and technology and gradually spread to other parts of the world, including the United States and Australia. The nineteenth-century world's fairs did not exhibit only machines and the products they manufactured. They attempted to summarize, categorize, and evaluate the whole of human experience. Displays of natural products, handmade goods, the fine arts, models, and ethnographic artifacts were also an important part of the exhibitions. Although the world's fairs sought to educate visitors about scientific and technological advances, entertainments and amusements gradually became a central feature of the events and sometimes even overshadowed their industrial component. The world's fairs celebrated international cooperation and peaceful competition among nations, but they were also sites of national rivalry, where countries celebrated their national identities and strove for prestige by exhibiting their manufactures, cultural achievements, and imperial possessions (Swift, Antony. "World's Fairs." Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire, edited by John Merriman and Jay Winter, vol. 5, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006).

This digitised archive contains a varied selection of documents from many of the largest world's fairs, providing resources for researching the public presentation alongside the back-office records that show how these fairs would run. 

 

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